When you’re putting on a production of a classic play — already performed thousands of times — by a canonical playwright like Shakespeare, the devil’s in the details of the adaptation. For this summer’s production of King Lear by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF), the devil’s in the oil.
“We’re setting [King Lear] in the roughly 1890 American West, because it seemed to the director and myself that we wanted to look for an American equivalent to what King Lear represented in ancient Britain,” says CSF Director Philip Sneed. “And it seemed like in King Lear, there were very few rules and that the monarchs were sort of making things up as they went and had absolute power, and the oil and timber barons of the American West in the 19th century seemed like an interesting equivalent to that of men who weren’t kings but sort of acted like they were and were used to having things their way, and then when they fall and they’re no longer in charge, it’s a huge shock. That was explored in movies like There Will Be Blood recently, which is part of the inspiration for this.”
King Lear starts off an eclectic mix of plays for the CSF’s 53rd season, which will mix three Shakespeare plays with two classic American works — a play and a musical. The CSF season, which opens on July 2, presents the aforementioned tragedy King Lear; the comedy The Taming of the Shrew; the lesser-known gem Measure by Measure; The Fantasticks, the 1960 musical that had a 42-year run on Broadway; and Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic Our Town.
The non-Shakespeare choices are relatively new to the festival; The Fantasticks is only the second musical the festival has ever produced. (The first was in 2008.) The decision to offer the longest-running Broadway musical ever alongside classic Shakespeare plays is partially an effort to attract paying customers who might be less willing to spring for theater tickets given the economic downturn, but it’s partially to pay tribute to American classics as well as British ones, Sneed says.
“If you look at the idea of what a classic is, and if we look at classics from other cultures, first of all, America’s a young country, so we don’t have 400-year-old classics,” Sneed says. “We have 50-year-old classics, 75-year-old classics, and our classic theater is the musical theater, because we essentially invented that form. So when we look at American classic theater, it’s impossible to ignore the musical theater genre.”
Sands Hall, who performed with the CSF as a young actor in 1975, returns to the festival to direct The Fantasticks.
“The significance of that [1975 production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline] is that was the production that finished Shakespeare’s canon for us, and with that production in 1975, we became one of the first theaters in the world to have done all 37 plays that Shakespeare wrote, and this director played a leading role in that production, which is kind of fun,” Sneed says.
John Hutton, a 19-year veteran of the Denver Center Theatre Company, graces Boulder to play the title role in King Lear, fresh off of playing Iago in the Denver Center’s recent production of Othello.
The last couple years have been hard on the arts, and the CSF is no exception, Sneed says, adding that about 75 percent of the festival’s funding comes from ticket sales.
“I think all of my colleagues in the arts field are challenged by the economy,” Sneed says. “We’ve made a lot of budget cuts, and we’re trying to be prudent in these times. We certainly see signs of improvement, and we expect this year to be better than last, but it’s still a time to be very cautious. The belt gets tighter and tighter every year the last couple of years, so it’s more demanding for everybody than ever before.”